For a mayor who routinely calls public education his top priority, Karl Dean held his recent State of Metro address at an appropriate place: Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet High School, one of two Nashville schools consistently ranked among the nation’s top-performing public schools. Newsweek currently has Hume-Fogg slotted at 32nd overall.
“What they achieve here at Hume-Fogg is a perfect example of the incredible work that goes on around our city every day,” Dean told a crowd of courthouse regulars, community leaders, students and media.
But there’s one catch that has frustrated parents and students for years: There are very few schools like Hume-Fogg.
As those who’ve placed their fortunes in Metro’s magnet lottery system know full well, only two other Metro schools are built around the same comprehensive academic magnet concept, which subjects students to higher standards and requires top TCAP testing results for enrollment. One of those is Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet High School — the second Nashville high school consistently ranked nationally. The other is East Nashville’s Meigs Middle School.
Each January, the story is the same. Parents cross their fingers in hopes of getting their children into Metro’s best schools. The excellence is underscored by Hume-Fogg and MLK’s average ACT score of 26, compared with 18 for the district as a whole. Most don’t get in. This past year, Metro received 2,094 qualified applicants for the three schools, but could only admit 618 because of space. Some leave the district altogether and opt for private schooling. Others fall back to their zoned schools.
“We were 499th on the waiting list,” said Jessica Kimbrough, whose daughter applied to Meigs but will attend West End Middle next year. “That’s a pretty clear message that you’re not going to Meigs.”
The dilemma — which pins fate on the draw of a number — continues as Metro has transformed six existing schools into thematic magnets with the help of federal grant dollars. Set to open this fall, these schools carry that “magnet” name, but are based on these areas of study: museums, entertainment and STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Unlike Hume-Fogg or Meigs, there are no eligibility requirements based on testing. In their own right, admissions at these schools — designed to diversify student bodies — were impressive this spring, officials say. But it’s unclear whether they’re attracting the same students who apply for academic magnets.
“I definitely believe my constituents want more academic magnet schools, but I don’t believe that’s the best system for our schools,” said school board member Kay Simmons, who represents West Nashville. “I believe that strong academics should be at all zoned schools. You shouldn’t have to go to magnets to be the beneficiary of a quality academic program.”
But for many, the answer to the market demand of academic magnets seems so obvious: Build more of them in other parts of the county, using Hume-Fogg, MLK and Meigs as models.
This idea doesn’t seem to be on the to-do list for Director of Schools Jesse Register, whose contract as Metro’s superintendent was extended through 2015 last week. One of the reasons is the fear of separating Metro’s highest performing students from their peers.
“The characteristics that make those schools successful can be successful in all other magnet schools and zoned schools,” Register told The City Paper when asked about launching more academic magnets based on Metro’s three existing ones. He pointed to East Literature Magnet School as a thematic model that has excelled.
“When you think about academic magnets, we’ve got a small set that are highly successful schools,” Register said. “But the question is, where do you draw the line? I think it’s wrong to think about creating a system of schools that serve the brightest 50 percent of the kids in the district, or the brightest 25 percent of kids in the district. What happens to the other half?”
Metro Councilman Eric Crafton, who is running for council at-large this election, has helped elevate the issue by introducing a nonbinding memorializing resolution that, if approved, would request that academic magnets be placed in all 12 of Metro’s high school clusters. Crafton is known for proposing such resolutions — which have no direct effect on policy — on all sorts of topics, including education. His latest might actually reflect wide public sentiment.
“Parents are telling schools what they want,” said Crafton, whose daughter was unable to break through the lottery system to attend Meigs this year. “In my opinion, we need to expand the academic magnet program at the middle and high school levels, and have academic magnets in every part of the county.
“We need to have enough to allow all the children who qualify to go,” he said. “There’s a real penalty if you’re not one of the ones that’s lucky enough to win a lottery. Right now, the way our system operates is, you pick winners and losers by the lottery system, and the ACT scores bear this out.”
Register said he would not support Crafton’s proposal, noting that the plan would call for 12 academic magnets high schools.
“That’s not something that’s practical from my point of view,” he said. “We’re creating tracks when we do that. Our challenge is to differentiate our instruction so that all of the children have an opportunity for a very highly successful focus and can be successful themselves.”
But the spirit of Crafton’s initiative appeals to a large base. At-large Councilwoman Megan Barry’s liberal politics are about as opposite as they come to Crafton’s conservatism. Still, Barry called expanding academic magnets an idea worth exploring. She said thematic magnets “serve a niche,” but added that you don’t see them ranked in the top 100 nationwide.
“In my time as a parent of a child in Nashville who was part of the public school system, and went into the lottery system, it has always amazed me that every year we have many, many more subscribers than we have services for those folks,” Barry said. “We have not taken any initiative over the past several years to beef up and add more academic magnets, which clearly the customer is telling us, that’s what they want.”
According to MNPS data, 23 percent of all students exercise some form of choice in the form of attending charter, magnet or various enhanced-option schools that are not their zoned schools. Register said schools like Head Middle Magnet School, which doesn’t have academic criteria, are also in high demand.
New thematic magnet schools this fall come via a $12 million, three-year competitive grant that the U.S. Department of Education awarded to Metro. A museum theme is the center of Robert Churchwell Elementary and John Early Middle, the STEM model is set for Hattie-Cotton Elementary, Bailey Middle and Stratford High, and an entertainment industry magnet is to complement the existing business magnet at Pearl-Cohn High School.
A key objective of the grant is to increase diversity at these schools, which have historically large African-American student bodies.
Alan Coverstone, who is overseeing the magnet grant’s implementation for Metro schools, said Churchwell and John Elementary are both completely full. Enrollment was open for the school’s inaugural year, but as demand increases officials expect to turn to a lottery system. Coverstone characterized the public response to the new schools as “overwhelming.”
“People are incredibly excited about it,” he said. “It creates real opportunities at these schools to do what people say can’t be done — that’s build more excellent schools for more kids.”
Coverstone said instructors at all six schools are using the themes to introduce 21st century skills. Instead of teaching subjects in isolation, they’re to be integrated into various real-world situations. For example, he said, the museum-based schools present questions such as: What is a museum? How do museums make choices about what they display? How do they teach? How do they collaborate to make the exhibits? At the STEM schools, students are to confront “real technological challenges and engineering conundrums” using cross-disciplinary approaches and teamwork among students.
“What we’re looking for is teams of teachers working with teams of students to tackle authentic problems at a really high level of academics,” he said. “They all have that in common.”
The new magnets are also relying on collaboration with community partners. Local museums, for instance, are bridging with Churchwell and John Early, and members of Nashville’s music and film industries working with Pearl-Cohn’s entertainment magnet
Jay Steele, associate superintendent of Metro’s highs schools, said Pearl-Cohn is featuring a fully functioning television studio, an audio engineering lab with professional software, and a radio station. Existing business labs will be geared toward the financial side of entertainment, with talks of local banks coming onboard.
“There’s a lot of things happening,” Steele said.